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Is Silverton ready for a cleanup?

As mines continue to leach pollutants, some residents reconsider Superfund

All around Silverton, where a series of mines – once lucrative, now abandoned – pock the earth like gaping, oozing wounds, the waters course with poison.

Silverton resident Melody Skinner said her now dead dog Hannah wouldn’t drink water from Cement Creek – which U.S. Geological Survey scientists say is the largest untreated mine drainage in the state – though the creek runs right by her house.

“She just refused,” she said. “That says something.”

The stream of heavy-metal pollutants gushing out of Silverton’s mines and into its waterways has grown so toxic that between 2005 and 2010, three out of the four trout species living in the Upper Animas River south of Silverton have disappeared.

Yet for two decades, vocal Silverton residents have torpedoed the Environmental Protection Agency’s many attempts to designate Silverton’s worst mines as Superfund sites, which would allow the agency to clean up the pollution and make any parties it deems responsible pay for it.

Though the environmental catastrophe has, if anything, worsened, Silverton residents long have argued against Superfund, saying federal intervention would sully the town’s reputation, deter mining companies and appall tourists.

Until now, that is.

Even three years ago, it was impossible to imagine, let alone hear, a Silverton resident publicly clamoring for federal intervention in Cement Creek, said Mark Esper, editor of The Silverton Standard. Yet in the last year, he said, there have been signs that locals’ hostility to Superfund is softening.

This month, Skinner said a Superfund listing would “raise property values here, provide great jobs that people here can do, bring new people in and get more kids in the school.”

Silverton resident John Poole said, “Many people, including myself, think Superfund, frankly, is the best thing that could happen to Silverton. It’s certain to open up jobs. In Leadville, Superfund certainly didn’t hurt tourism.”

There’s still local animosity toward Superfund. In 2014, at meetings of the Animas River Stakeholders Group (ARSG) and the San Juan County Commission, residents such as Steve Fearn, co-coordinator of the ARSG, warned a Superfund designation would hamper, if not ruin, Silverton’s economy.

Poole said he thought the notion of Silverton’s overwhelming opposition to Superfund was “grossly overblown.”

“As far as I’m concerned, all the opposition is coming from a few people with conflicts of interest, who oppose the EPA because they profit financially from keeping the myth of mining – the idea that mining will come back to Silverton – alive,” Poole said.

Esper said he thought the EPA had “done a good job coming here and explaining the Superfund process, making it less of a bogeyman.”

The EPA’s Cynthia Peterson said she and colleague Paula Schmittdiel had visited Silverton six times since last April.

Other Silvertonians attribute their increasing openness to the Superfund route to their growing disillusionment with the ARSG, a volunteer group that has tried to find solutions to water pollution caused by mine drainages since the 1990s through a “collaborative process” that includes the EPA and Sunnyside Gold Corp., the last mining company to operate in Silverton.

Sunnyside adamantly opposes a Superfund listing. The designation would give the EPA broad powers to force any parties it deems responsible for damage to pay for a cleanup.

In an email, Sunnyside’s representative Larry Perino said, “Superfund is potentially ‘fool’s gold’ – there are real questions as to whether Silverton would even be eligible to be listed as a Superfund site, and even if it was listed, it’s far from certain that monies would be available under Superfund.”

Sunnyside continues to endorse the ARSG.

“Sunnyside continues to fully support the collaborative approach and believes the Animas River Stakeholders Group’s collaborative timeline schedule can profoundly improve water quality in the Animas River,” Perino said.

But Poole was among Silvertonians who said he has become impatient with the collaborative process, saying Sunnyside, which denies liability for the mine pollution, merely is proposing a “game plan” to avoid Superfund.

“Now, they’re just making public-relations offers because as a deep-pocketed party, they’re trying to avoid liability.”

Sunnyside Gold Corp. is owned by Kinross Gold Corp., an international mining conglomerate with a market capitalization of $3.7 billion, according to its stock evaluation.

A majority of the San Juan County commissioners say they still support the ARSG and object to Superfund.

Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier said, “Right now, our stance is that we don’t want Superfund to come in. We want the stakeholders’ approach. They’ve spent 20 years on it, and we want to give them one more chance. Let’s see how plugging the Red and Bonita works.”

Commissioner Ernest Kuhlman said, “Superfund designation could have irreversible affects for any community, especially a mining community. We’re not going to get any companies to invest or pursue mining in our area with a Superfund designation hanging over our heads.”

While the apparent shift in Silvertonian public opinion could have implications for the legal brinksmanship between the EPA and Sunnyside Gold, many residents said the lack of resolution surrounding metal pollution in the Animas had become embarrassing.

Paul Beaber, who grew up in Silverton, recalled a conversation he had with a fisherman near Animas Surgical Hospital in Durango five years ago.

“The guy told me there was no trout anymore because Silverton killed them. And the problem of water quality in Durango has gotten even worse since,” he said.

Silverton resident William Dodge said “there’s been testing for decades. Given the harm done to the environment, the Animas isn’t going to heal itself naturally. People say they’re concerned about the negative impression that Superfund might create. But Silverton has danced around the subject for so many years, as conditions just keep getting worse. I can’t imagine something more negative than what’s already happened,” he said.

“We all agree that it’s terribly important to protect the water and the environment,” Dodge said. “But this isn’t just a Silverton issue. Silverton has clean water to drink – it’s the folks downstream, in Durango and in the Southern Ute Tribe – who are most outrightly affected by the mine drainage into the water.”

If alive, Skinner’s dog, Hannah, might disagree.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

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